Friday, June 10, 2011


A Hundred Years of Solitude

On the 30th of June in 1910 the Third Royal Bavarian Field Artillery fired the first symbolic cannon shot at Grafenwöhr, in Germany. That shot, as it were, christened a famous troop training ground for future use. Germans and Americans celebrated the centennial of this event last year. Americans? Yes. We were there because we still are. Grafenwöhr is now U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwöhr. The current U.S. administration dates from October 1991—but so short sometimes is collective memory that the current command is silent about the earlier history, including American history, at this by now ancient and continuously used military installation. I spent some time at Grafenwöhr around about 1958 when my unit, the 8th Division Artillery, spent part of a summer on exercises there. Late that fall DivArty (as we called ourselves), had to send someone to Grafenwöhr again on some administrative errand—the nature of which now totally escapes me. In any case I volunteered to go, and two of us, a driver and myself, set off on the day-long voyage. I spent two days there before we left again for the return trip.

I volunteered because on my first stay there I had experienced the magical desolation of this strange firing range in what was then an economically backward sort of no-man’s-land in eastern Bavaria. In a way I was home again—because, as the crow flies, Grafenwöhr lies less than 25 miles from Tirschenreuth, a town farther to the north and east—my first and most memorable home in Germany. There was a silence out there, in Grafenwöhr, a silence that soaked, that permeated even the rude concrete barracks we’d inhabited. Most of the time, of course, they were empty, and silence their natural state. But going deeper, into the firing range itself, the desolation deepened—even visually. Yet I experienced this as an inexpressibly positive inner state. So I volunteered, eagerly, to spend a little more time in that magical place.

Odd, actually. In its one hundred-and-now-one years of history Grafenwöhr has seen a vast mixture of men from all over the globe. During World War I it served as a POW camp and housed up to 23,600 French and Russian prisoners. During World War II it got enlarged. Thirty-five hundred inhabitants were displaced to make room for two- or three-times that many troops. Under the Nazi regime Italian and Spanish troops were trained there—and then came the Americans. In 1958 Elvis Presley spent six weeks there while on maneuvers in the Army, and presumably the place then temporarily actually saw the world’s press make an unlikely appearance. And yet…and yet this place, at least when I was there, was a landscape of desolation and of silence, yes, despite the constant distant sound of dull artillery rounds exploding somewhere out of sight.

The pictures show an old painting of Grafenwöhr’s water tower—and the second the way it looked when, briefly, I had the privilege of passing through there. But don’t let the pictures fool you; you can’t photograph solitude...

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